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Stroke and Heart Disease

Every part of your body, including your heart and your brain, needss oxygen to work. Oxygen is carried in the blood. Blood vessels called arteries carry oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. Both heart attack and stroke are due to problems in the arteries. The same factors that cause heart disease can make you more likely to have a stroke.

  • Heart Attack. A heart attack is caused by blockage in an artery that carries blood to the heart muscle. If blood is blocked, that part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies.

  • Stroke. If an artery supplying the brain is blocked, a stroke may result. This is called an ischemic stroke. It is caused by a piece of plaque breaking loose from an artery (such as a carotid artery in the neck) or from the heart and lodging in the brain. A stroke caused by the rupture of a weakened blood vessel is called a hemorrhagic stroke.

Both heart attack and stroke are medical emergencies that can lead to serious health problems. They can even be fatal.

Cross section of branched healthy artery compared to an unhealthy artery with plaque in stiff walls under injured lining. Blood clot is blocking channel in one branch. Arrow shows blood flow blocked at clot and continuing to flow down other branch.

Healthy Artery

A healthy artery is a tube with flexible walls and a smooth inner lining. Blood flows freely through it.

Unhealthy Artery

Artery problems start when the inner lining gets damaged. This is often due to risk factors such as smoking and high blood pressure. These can make the artery walls stiff. Plaque, a fatty mix of cholesterol and other material, forms in the lining. This narrows the channel. Plaque can break, restricting blood flow further. It can also cause a blood clot to form. A blood clot may block the artery’s channel completely. 

Reducing your Risk

The good news: Making changes that make your arteries healthier will help lower your risk for both heart attack and stroke. If you have heart disease, you may need to work on a few aspects of your lifestyle. But remember that the things that are good for your arteries, heart, and brain are also good for the rest of your body. Your doctor will help you find a plan that works for you. It will likely include:

  • Controlling risk factors (health problems and habits that raise your chances of a heart attack or stroke). Lose excess weight. If you smoke, quit. Lower your blood pressure and manage your cholesterol. If you have diabetes, keep it under control.

  • Eating healthier. Choose healthier fats and limit harmful ones. Replace high-sugar and high-fat foods with fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Get the right amounts of the foods you need.

  • Becoming more active. Get out and walk. Build up to 30 minutes or more most days. Try to find other ways to be more physically active in your daily life.

  • Taking medications, such as asprin or other antiplatelet drugs, as prescribed. Aspirin is very inexpensive and is widely available over the counter. Take your medications as directed and keep track of them all. Don’t stop any without your doctor’s OK. Give each of your health care providers a list of all your medications.

Online Medical Reviewer: Criqui, Michael H, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Lui, Karen R, RN, MS< FAACVPR
Last Review Date: 3/18/2011
© 2000-2014 Krames StayWell, 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.